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Latest cellphone unlocking bill proposes significant digital copyright reform

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iPhone PIN unlock mosaic 1020
iPhone PIN unlock mosaic 1020

Lawmakers are continuing the push to legalize cellphone unlocking in the United States with a new bipartisan bill just introduced in the House of Representatives. The Unlocking Technology Act of 2013 proposes amending a section of the Digital Millennium Copyright Act which currently prohibits circumvention of digital device protections, even when the circumvention doesn't violate copyright.

The bill comes courtesy of noted digital rights defender Zoe Lofgren (D-CA), and has already found three co-sponsors: Anna Eshoo (D-CA), Thomas Massie (R-KY), and Jared Polis (D-CO). It joins a host of similar unlocking bills that were introduced in the Senate after the White House responded positively to an online petition, saying that letting consumers unlock their phones was "common sense," and "crucial for protecting consumer choice."

Under the current law, exemptions can be introduced to legalize device modifications for specific, non-infringing purpose, such as providing access to people with disabilities. But those exemptions lapse every three years unless they are reinstated by an unelected bureaucrat, the Librarian of Congress.

"Americans should not be subject to fines and criminal liability for merely unlocking devices and media they legally purchased."

A massive online campaign began in February after the Librarian decided not to reinstate the unlocking exemption, effectively making the act of unlocking a device to allow customers to switch networks without a carrier's permission a felony. But Lofgren's bill is especially significant because unlike other proposals, it changes the DMCA to permanently protect the circumvention of digital locks on various devices and media — not just cellphones — as long as it isn't done to facilitate copyright infringement.

"Americans should not be subject to fines and criminal liability for merely unlocking devices and media they legally purchased," said Rep. Lofgren in an emailed statement. "If consumers are not violating copyright or some other law, there’s little reason to hold back the benefits of unlocking so people can continue using their devices."

"Everyone should be free to use their personal devices as they see fit and choose their preferred technologies without penalty," said Rep. Massie. "This bill rolls back excessive and out-dated prohibitions on otherwise lawful innovations that promote marketplace competition."

The bill has better chances than most, being as how it already has significant bipartisan support. And considering the various other unlocking bills already in the Senate, it's starting to seem very likely there will be some kind of solution to this issue in the near future.